Posts Tagged ‘Theory’

Day 100: The Bitter End.

November 4, 2009

Well, here we are, 100 days. This is a bitter pill for me; I had goals and hopes for a new project, and frankly, most of them didn’t work out, and while most of that wasn’t within my control, I know I made several crucial mistakes. Tag’s Folly was supposed to be a way for me to game more frequently and meet new people, provide gamers in Toronto with something they wanted, and prove that I could take on a big project on top of everything else that I do.

What follows is my postmortem.

What worked:

  1. The daily blogging schedule.
  2. Meeting new gamers.
  3. Getting more games in.

What didn’t work:

  1. I had the impression that there was a big pent-up demand for D&D 4e GMing; as it turned out there was … a little, and with a bunch of work you could get a group together.  But it wasn’t easy, as I’d hoped it would be, and that meant it took a long time for any of the organizers that did step up to schedule a session.
  2. I  didn’t get the rush of enthusiasm I was hoping for; everyone who organized sessions – and I appreciate their work – expressed that wasn’t really that much fun compared to how hard it was to get people together.  In some cases that meant straight drop-offs, leaving me with the task of “selling” the game to people to find organizers.
  3. The 4e ruleset, played by the book and prepped in advance is not conducive to a low-key campaign, and thus the 4e game would never be a self-sustaining organism.
  4. GTA transit kind of sucks; people just can’t get around, and when I run a game and have to spend 2 hours getting home, it hurts pretty bad.
  5. Real life threw me a few curveballs, particularly on the family and work side, and that derailed me pretty seriously.  Of course I set out on this trajectory when things were looking up, and when things got turbulent, and then outright sucktacular, I had to rein something in.  Unfortunately by the time that happened, the 4e campaign was the only thing in my life that I could really rein in.

What I learned:

  1. D&D is a game for people with basements, cars, and a lot more spare time than I have.
  2. When you get your name out there for running a game like this, all your old gamer friends remember you and start inviting you to their games.  You can quickly become a victim of your own success.
  3. A general appraisal of risks is a good idea even for personal projects.
  4. I hate prep that doesn’t get into a session right away.
  5. 4th edition is a better drill and a worse omnitool than previous editions.   It’s much harder to get it to do something different without hacking the rules, and the rules are much harder to hack.
  6. West Marches games are social monsters; there are a lot of uncharted social waters that you wade into and unless you’re a real extrovert, it will be stressful to run them.  This goes doubly for strangers.

Day 69: When is D&D not D&D?

October 4, 2009

When is D&D not D&D? Most of the time, really.

Much like human cultures, the play experience of Dungeons and Dragons evolved in small, isolated, tightly knit groups, and then the internet ruined it.

When D&D first came out in the 70s, ndividual GMs were given a grand vision – but that vision wasn’t realized or even broadly structured through the provided rules. Look at this contemporary review of OD&D to see what I’m talking about.

So GMs, still called “referees” at the time, took to the various early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. They assembled players, tried to play, dealt with problems, made rulings, and had fun. Those GMs experienced the thing we now call a shared imagined space, and it stuck. D&D became a phenomenon, shaping early nerd culture.

But because of the isolated-groups factor, and the need to tinker with or reinterpret the early rules, the actual play of D&D started to take on wildly different forms. People playing the same game in other cities or regions could be using wildly different techniques – from devolution to the six word RPG, right through to elaborate puzle construction, through to mock-up siege battles. These differences didn’t matter, because the groups were more or less isolated from one another anyway, but some players realized they weren’t maximizing their fun, but could rarely find ways to improve their situation.

Enter the Internet, early cultural haven of geekdom, where these discussions about how to make the game more fun took on strange and exotic shapes. An example of this is the ever-recurring discussion about realism, whereby players latch on to realism as a way to make their play more satisfying. Over time, these discussions took on familiar patterns: Would Indiana Jones be more fun if it were more realistic? How can you inhabit the imaginary space if it doesn’t obey concrete rules? And so on.

The Internet also created new troubles, because, by its nature, internet discussions lack nuance. People with differing play styles would rarely be able to come to terms, because both sides expressed that they were “playing D&D”. Phrases like “rollplaying vs. roleplaying” and labels like “munchkin” frequently served to only muddy the waters further. Pointless, endless arguments resulted, and the flames of those wars still burn today, fed by the volatile runoff from the Internet’s various gaming cesspools.

But in some places, a fairly coherent language for describing play emerged. That language is still evolving, but even so I think of it as my omni-tool for communicating about games.

So to bring it back to Tag’s Folly, we ask: How does Tag’s Folly differ from D&D?

Well, first of all, the game has a specifically Step-on-up creative agenda; the players set up expeditions to try to beat the Wastes, not to experience any sort of story.  To this end, my role as a GM is to build and place encounters appropriately, to make the Wastes a sensible environment in which to be challenged.  This also means playing the monsters in a way that is true to their skills, their psychology, and their stats – and not to scale the difficulty of encounters to make them more appropriate to the party that encounters them.  In this context, no “plot” is developed, and any stories that come out of play are the result of players telling stories about what they accomplished.

Socially, the game is extremely different from the standard D&D situation.  In a normal D&D group, one player – usually the most enthusiastic one – corrals his friends into playing a game, and is also the GM.  This player thereby takes on responsibility for the game’s fun – after all, he recruited his friends, prepared the game, and has a massive amount of authority via the structure of a GM-centric game.  This, to me, is a massively unbalanced social scene, and Tag’s Folly doesn’t fall into that trap.  Instead, the game explicitly requires players (i.e., not the GM) to schedule sessions and provide the hook that takes the party “out the door.”  This, in my opinion, helps keep the game more balanced, because the players have to start by doing the work that shows they want to be there.

In terms of system, very little is different in Tag’s Folly.  My attempts so far to improve the encounter generation algorithm haven’t been successful, for example.  So the game sticks to the D&D 4th Edition rules quite closely – to the point where characters must be “legal” qua the character builder.  Here’s some notable exceptions:

  • I restricted the races and classes so that player characters would have a natural tendency to find common ground within their ethnicity.
  • Sessions are designed with about 2-3 encounters in mind, and sites are designed to be either tightly focused or at least compartmentalized.
  • So far I generally avoid using Skill Challenges, as I find basic skill checks very comfortable and familiar from my experience with 2e and 3e

Also, our techniques are always evolving at the table.  I do find that things have gone most smoothly when I am well-rested, with extremely well-prepared encounters.  Likewise play goes best when the players both know the rules relevant to their characters, make fast decisions, and so on.

But for color, I’m having a blast.  I have painted a whole lot of color on the game.  On its face, this world with Tiefers, Wasters, Sawtooths, Gecks, Gants, Scurvs, Grays, Sentinels, and Vulgar Gods sounds categorically different from D&D’s standard tropes.  Really, the impact of those decisions on the mechanics of play is miniscule – but I still think it’s important.  Dwarves, Elves, and Orcs have become so commonplace in our culture, nerd or not, that it can be easy to see them more as pieces on a board than active elements of fiction.  I hope that the world I’m sketching out here is interesting enough that a player naturally inhabits the fictional space, and that a while later, you can even forget that you’re roleplaying.

D&D, but not exactly.

Day 66: West Marches vs. 4e

October 1, 2009

In the original West Marches, travelling to a site involved crossing regions, with each region being largely defined by its random encounter list.  This was a way for the setting to be front and center, which hooked nicely into the GM-as-referee elements of West Marches.

But when using 4e as the system for a West Marches game, the random encounters just don’t fit.

For example, say the players are crossing 3 regions to get to an interesting site.  If each region is a day to cross, and we figure about a 50% chance of a random encounter per day, then we’ve got about 3 encounters just to get there and back.  Then there’s any site that the players investigate on the way, say 1 encounter, and another 2-3 encounters at the site itself.

With 4th edition D&D, that’s easily 7 hours of gameplay, and likely more when you have to split it over multiple sessions.  The players stop being able to flexibly schedule their characters, and that’s not what I want for Tag’s Folly.  I made this mistake in designing the regions and encounters that were relevant to the first expedition, which is the big reason they’re still not back yet.  It looks like 2 or 3 encounters rounds out a good 3 to 4 hour expedition.

The ideal West Marches style session involves leaving the safety of the town, travelling through wilderness, doing something at a particular site, and going back. The session is a self-contained sojourn that meaningfully impacts the world, which frees up all players to launch and participate in expeditions using their favorite characters.  So with 4e, I can’t make the players roll random encounters going through each region, since just going there or back will eat a whole session.  That’s why I’ve decided to jettison random encounters from the Tag’s Folly campaign, at least for now, and designing sites to be compartmentalized or tightly focused.

Day 65: Resources

September 30, 2009

Over at the TAG forum, John brought up a good point, that if players know there are only 2 or 3 encounters in an expedition, some of the resource management of 4th Edition will be lost.  Tracking resources from one session to the next is possible in a regular game, but too onerous for me to do as a league GM where casual players may have multiple characters but only play for a few sessions.  This isn’t a big worry for me – I think I tend to put my encounters on the hard side anyway, and I’m guessing that the benefits of short expeditions to the real-world players outweigh the fun that would be had making the characters’ lives more tightly tracked.  But I really do want to play tightly to the rules, keeping their relation to the fictional world’s “physics” intact.

I’d like to hear other opinions on this.  When it comes to resources, what’s fun?  What works for the “league” style game?  What makes the game better?

Day 64: If only it were that easy

September 29, 2009

A few people, notably John, suggested that I should try to use pre-prepped modules and so on to build my encounters for me.

I have been trying to do this, but generally, I find:

1) It takes me longer to internalize someone else’s encounter than it does to simply make it myself.

2) Putting pre-made encounters into the Tag’s Folly universe counteracts the time saved.

3) Most of my time is spent printing up monster stats, getting tokens, and drawing the map anyway.

4) The modules coming out from Wizards notoriously ignore much of their own GMing advice from the DMG and DMG2.

Analysis of that last point is the subject of a very good blog called Eleven Foot Pole.